The bronze medal match, like the other four matches Malik was involved in at Rio, was full of action and grit.
Malik went five points down against Kyrgyzstan’s Aisuluu Tynybekova, but that did not deter her.
In the second period of the match, Malik fought back with relentless attacks, and with nine seconds remaining on the clock, she had tied the score.
Tynybekova tried a takedown in the final seconds, but Malik defended and then countered with her own successful takedown to win the match 8-5.
In her thrilling opening bout, she came back from 0-4 down, to win 5-4, scoring her final two points in the last seconds of the match.
Then, she won her round of 16 match coming from 0-3 down, with a spectacular takedown that earned her four points. The only match she lost was a crucial one, the quarter-final, where she had no answer to Russia’s Valeria Koblova, who won 9-2. Koblova qualified for the final, paving the way for Malik through repechage. Malik won her first repechage bout, against Mongolia’s Orkhon, in a dominating fashion (12-3) to advance to the medal match.
Malik has plenty of experience in fighting the odds. She was born in a village called Mokhra, near Rohtak in Haryana. Wrestling is seen as a quintessentially male sport in India. In most local wrestling tournaments, women are not allowed even as spectators.
But Haryana, which has the most skewed gender ratio in the country, is also the centre of a revolution in getting women into wrestling. The two other women representing India in wrestling at Rio also come from a Haryana village—Babita and Vinesh (who lost her quarter-final match after a torn ligament) are cousin sisters. They were brought up by wrestling coach Mahavir Singh Phogat after Vinesh’s father was murdered in a land dispute. Mahavir has four daughters of his own, and two he adopted after his brother’s death—all six are wrestlers. (The oldest of the six, Geeta, was the first woman to represent India in wrestling at the London Olympics in 2012.)
Starting from 2002, a sustained campaign by a handful of wrestling coaches, including Malik’s coach Ishwar Dahiya, began to see the first women coming into wrestling.
“There was a lot of social backlash," Dahiya says. “No one liked this. When Malik first came into my school, she was harassed both by her neighbours in the village, and by people on the streets."
Malik was 11 when she began wrestling at the Chotu Ram Stadium in Rohtak, where Dahiya is the instructor. She was inspired by her grandfather, who was a local wrestler.
“In Haryana, it is traditional to have at least one wrestler in every generation in the family," says Sukhvir Malik, Sakshi’s father. “But that is only meant for men. But when we heard that girls were going to be allowed to train at Rohtak stadium (all government-run facilities were told to introduce women’s wrestling in the late 1990s, after women’s wrestling was made a part of the Olympic event.), we thought, why not? Why shouldn’t Sakshi carry on the family tradition? She was a strong, fast, girl with lots of energy, perfect for wrestling."
“Now she has given the best reply there could be for all those people who said that women wrestling is a shameful thing," Sudesh, Sakshi’s mother, said.
Malik had starting making her mark at an early age, winning at junior national competitions with ease, and picking up a bronze in 2010 at the World Junior Wrestling Championships. Her breakthrough victory came in 2014, when she won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Last year, she won the bronze at the Asian Wrestling Championships. But it’s the Olympic medal that’s made her an instant celebrity.
Twitter was abuzz after her victory. The former India cricketer Virender Sehwag, also from Haryana, had a stinging statement to make: #SakshiMalik is a reminder of what cn happn if u don’t kill a girl child.When d going gets tough,its our girls who get going &save our pride
Here comes the first!Thank you & congratulations #SakshiMalik!You’re the reason for a billion smiles today," actor Akshay Kumar tweeted.
“#SakshiMalik has salvaged the pride of a billion people.This must become the moment when we inspire ourselves to turn Indian sport around," the industrialist Anand Mahindra said on twitter.
Former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar said: “What great news to wake up to! #SakshiMalik, your resilience at #Rio2016 has made whole of India proud. Many Congratulations!!!"
The win will also make Malik richer by more than ₹ 2.5 crore at least—going by the cash reward announcements that have already been made. More is sure to follow.